Emerging Trends
Local Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia and Jean-Claude Poissant, Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister of Agriculture, announced $2.9 million in funding at a press conference for two McGill projects aimed at mitigating greenhouse gas emissions caused by water and fertilizer use in agriculture.

Small planes have been flying over local farms and taking aerial photos for decades. Now, individual farmers are able to get an aerial view of a field using a small remote-controlled drone equipped with a camera.

But Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) has been receiving information from a far more sophisticated data collection network for at least the past 30 years, according to Leander Campbell.

Campbell, a geographer who specializes in geomatics, works as a remote sensing specialist with the Earth Observation team at AAFC. He says most of his work is on the AAFC Annual Space-Based Crop Inventory. He gets his data in the form of imagery from satellites and uses it to produce an accurate national crop map.

“The crop map, the one I work on, is at a 30 metre resolution so each pixel is a 30 metre by 30 metre square. It covers all of Canada,” he explains. Campbell adds one of the crops mapped in year one of the crop inventory in 2009 was soybeans. Since then, the data has shown how the crop is spreading west and north on the Prairies.
WTCM30.1 MB soybean 2009 2012
Campbell extracted only the soybean fields (in yellow) from Manitoba crop maps for the years 2009 and 2012.
Photo courtesy of Leander Campbell, AAFC.

The network Campbell gets his data from consists of several international satellites. The American satellite Landsat-8 provides optical data to create crop maps anyone can download. In addition to these data, Campbell’s team also uses microwave data from the Canadian RADARSAT-2 satellite.

The combination of optical and microwave data has been shown to produce more accurate maps than maps created from either single source. These maps are created and validated using data collected by people in the field. For the Prairies, “we have agreements with the provincial crop insurance companies,” Campbell says. “It’s not a perfect system but we’re about 85 per cent and 90 per cent accurate and working to improve that.”

Satellites don’t stay in orbit forever and Campbell says a backup is always an asset. Canada has plans to launch a constellation of three microwave satellites in 2018, the RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM), to gather data that’s even more detailed and precise than what’s available now.

“There are more uses than I ever thought of,” Campbell says. For instance, crop placements, crop monitoring, research, commodity marketing, land use management and even flood forecasting in Manitoba.

Microwave data collected by the European SMOS (Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity) satellite allows Campbell’s team to operationally measure soil moisture in the top five centimetres of soil. He says most people don’t realize the Earth naturally radiates very low-level microwave energy and a satellite in space can pick up the variations in waves. Water absorbs microwave energy. When the microwaves radiate out from the Earth and pass through the soil, some of them are captured by moisture in the soil. 

According to Campbell, in September 2015, Statistics Canada did not do a farmer survey, opting to use AAFC climate data to complete their crop yield forecast. Satellite data can describe how agriculture land is changing or evolving over the years, whether it’s farmland expanding by eliminating small woodlots or urban expansion covering agricultural land. These phenomena can be monitored year over year using the AAFC crop maps.

Campbell has compiled maps that helped document the areas where clubroot is developing in canola. Scott Keller, a farmer from Camrose County in Alberta, contacted AAFC, asking Campbell if he could map Camrose County to determine how often canola was grown in particular fields. Keller wanted to determine which fields grew canola most often, either in a tight rotation over multiple years or in succession, in order to determine if there was a correlation between the escalation of clubroot and the rotation schedule.
Canola crop
Map created by Campbell to monitor canola crop frequency in Camrose County, Alta. 
Photo courtesy of Leander Campbell, AAFC.

That’s just one way satellite data can support crop management. Campbell says he’s confident that as computer technology and Internet costs come down, AAFC will be able to create more products from data because they can monitor specific areas once or several times over a growing season, or over years.

Campbell and his six colleagues who create the crop maps, soil moisture reports and the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) reports have an international presence as well. “I know some of our maps are incorporated into more global crop assessments for global market information, especially the NDVI maps,” Campbell says.

He explains that several nations around the world use satellite imagery to monitor their own crops. They meet on a monthly basis and compare data on major crops like corn, wheat, rice and soybeans through an organization called GEOGLAM. The group’s website states its vision is to “use coordinated, comprehensive and sustained Earth observations to inform decisions and actions in agriculture through a system of agricultural monitoring.” https://cropmonitor.org

Canadian farmers can access existing maps and data products online from the AAFC website. Because these maps are highly detailed, producers may experience difficulty downloading them on devices while in the field, but they can still view them online. According to Campbell, that’s the sort feedback he needs to hear from farmers.

“In our little world we have all these high-end computers and that works fine for us, but it may not be the most practical thing for others,” Campbell says. And, he’s looking forward to finding more ways to help farmers and make the website more user-friendly.

As satellite mapping matures, both farmers and scientists will view agriculture in new ways and Campbell is enthusiastic about the possibilities. “It’s a really exciting time to be in our field,” Campbell says.


This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Top Crop Manager West

Urban sprawl has some Ontario farmers, agricultural organizations and even politicians looking to the north as the future for agriculture in the province. It is, after all, where producers can find cheaper land – typically priced between $1,000 to $1,500 per acre – and lots of it.
Sept. 7, 2916 - Canadian farmers are in a strong position to meet their financial obligations, despite plateauing farm incomes and slowing land appreciations, according to Farm Credit Canada's (FCC) 2016-2017 Outlook for Farm Assets and Debt Report.

“This financial strength allows the industry to invest even more in the innovation and productivity it will need to feed an ever-growing world population,” says J.P. Gervais, FCC’s chief agricultural economist.

In 2015, the debt-to-asset ratio on Canadian farms remained historically low at 15.5 per cent, compared to the previous five-year average of 15.9 per cent and the 15-year average of 16.7 per cent, according to the report.

A low debt-to-asset ratio is generally considered better for business, since it provides financial flexibility and lowers risk for producers.

FCC’s Outlook for Farm Assets and Debt Report provides an overview of the balance sheet of agriculture, focusing on the financial health of the sector. It also looks at the affordability of assets relative to farm income, with a special focus on farmland values.

“After a prolonged period of strong growth in farm asset and land values, our projections indicate a deceleration in both increasing land values and farm debt levels,” Gervais says.

The report analyzed three key indicators of the financial health of Canada’s agriculture sector: liquidity, solvency and profitability. It found that farm liquidity, which looks at the ability of producers to make short-term payments, and solvency – the proportion of total assets financed by debt – have remained consistently strong over the past five years.

In 2015, farm profitability, calculated by comparing net income to total assets, was slightly below the five-year average due to strong farm asset appreciation, especially in farmland values.

“Land is the most valuable asset a farmer owns and the most important input for agricultural production,” says Gervais, noting that land made up 67 per cent of the value of total farm assets in 2015, compared to 54 per cent in 1981.

“As farming becomes more profitable, farmland becomes more expensive,” he said. “However, when asset values are increasing more quickly than net farm income, overall profitability begins to soften. This reflects the cyclical nature of the business.”

From 2001 to 2011, the value of farmland and buildings appreciated on average 7.2 per cent per year, doubling over that timeframe. From 2012 to 2015, average annual appreciation was 11.7 per cent and total appreciation was 39.4 per cent.

Gervais says a combination of low interest rates and strong crop receipts was the primary cause of the rapid rate of asset appreciation in recent years. He projects appreciation will slow down with the expectation of lower crop prices over the next two to three years.

June 21, 2016 - The Harrington research farm in Harringon, P.E.I., is breaking new ground, becoming the first Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada facility in the country to have part of its operation certified organic.

The organic block is just 10 of the facility's approximately 400 hectares, but has been getting good reviews from organic growers in the region.

READ MORE.

 

Apr. 26, 2016 - Honey bee colonies in the United States are in decline, due in part to the ill effects of voracious mites, fungal gut parasites and a wide variety of debilitating viruses. Researchers from the University of Maryland (UMD) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently completed the first comprehensive, multi-year study of honey bee parasites and disease as part of the National Honey Bee Disease Survey. The findings reveal some alarming patterns, but provide at least a few pieces of good news as well.

The results, published online in the journal Apidologie on April 20, 2016, provide an important five-year baseline against which to track future trends. Key findings show that the varroa mite, a major honey bee pest, is far more abundant than previous estimates indicated and is closely linked to several damaging viruses. Also, the results show that the previously rare Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus has skyrocketed in prevalence since it was first detected by the survey in 2010.

The good news, however, is that three potentially damaging exotic species have not yet been introduced into the United States: the parasitic tropilaelaps mite, the Asian honey bee Apis cerana and slow bee paralysis virus.

"Poor honey bee health has gained a lot of attention from scientists and the media alike in recent years. However, our study is the first systematic survey to establish disease baselines, so that we can track changes in disease prevalence over time," said Kirsten Traynor, a postdoctoral researcher in entomology at UMD and lead author on the study. "It highlights some troubling trends and indicates that parasites strongly influence viral prevalence."

The results, based on a survey of beekeepers and samples from bee colonies in 41 states and two territories (Puerto Rico and Guam), span five seasons from 2009 through 2014. The study looked at two major parasites that affect honey bees: the varroa mite and nosema, a fungal parasite that disrupts a bee's digestive system. The study found clear annual trends in the prevalence of both parasites, with varroa infestations peaking in late summer or early fall and nosema peaking in late winter.

The study also found notable differences in the prevalence of varroa and nosema between migratory and stationary beehives. Migratory beekeepers -- those who truck their hives across the country every summer to pollinate a variety of crops -- reported lower levels of varroa compared with stationary beekeepers, whose hives stay put year-round. However, the reverse was true for nosema, with a lower relative incidence of nosema infection reported by stationary beekeepers.

Additionally, more than 50 per cent of all beekeeping operations sampled had high levels of varroa infestation at the beginning of winter -- a crucial time when colonies are producing long-lived winter bees that must survive on stored pollen and honey.

"Our biggest surprise was the high level of varroa, especially in fall, and in well-managed colonies cared for by beekeepers who have taken steps to control the mites," said study co-author Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an assistant professor of entomology at UMD. "We knew that varroa was a problem, but it seems to be an even bigger problem than we first thought. Moreover, varroa's ability to spread viruses presents a more dire situation than we suspected."

For years, evidence has pointed to varroa mites as a culprit in the spread of viruses, vanEngelsdorp noted. Until now, however, much of this evidence came from lab-based studies. The current study provides crucial field-based validation of the link between varroa and viruses.

"We know that varroa acts as a vector for viruses. The mites are basically dirty hypodermic needles," Traynor said. "The main diet for the mites is blood from the developing bee larva. When the bee emerges, the mites move on to the nearest larval cell, bringing viruses with them. Varroa can also spread viruses between colonies. When a bee feeds on a flower, mites can jump from one bee to another and infect a whole new colony."

Nosema, the fungal gut parasite, appears to have a more nuanced relationship with honey bee viruses. Nosema infection strongly correlates to the prevalence of Lake Sinai Virus 2, first identified in 2013, and also raises the risk for Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus. However, the researchers found an inverse relationship between nosema and Deformed Wing Virus.

Some viruses do not appear to be associated with varroa or nosema at all. One example is Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus, which causes loss of motor control and can kill individual bees within days. This virus was first detected by the survey in the U.S. in 2010. At that time, less than one per cent of all samples submitted for study tested positive for the virus. Since then, the virus' prevalence roughly doubled every year, reaching 16 per cent in 2014.

"Prior to this national survey, we lacked the epidemiological baselines of disease prevalence in honey bees. Similar information has been available for years for the cattle, pork and chicken industries," Traynor said. "I think people who get into beekeeping need to know that it requires maintenance. You wouldn't get a dog and not take it to the vet, for example. People need to know what is going on with the livestock they're managing."

While parasites and disease are huge factors in declining honey bee health, there are other contributors as well. Pesticides, for example, have been implicated in the decline of bee colonies across the country.

"Our next step is to provide a similar baseline assessment for the effects of pesticides," vanEngelsdorp said. "We have multiple years of data and as soon as we've finished the analyses, we'll be ready to tell that part of the story as well."

 

 

Dec. 7, 2015, Paris - Canada, led by the province of Alberta, is implementing climate-smart agriculture by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fertilizer use in crop production.

At least one million acres of farmland in Alberta are operating under 4R Nutrient Stewardship (Right Source at Right Rate, Right Time, Right Place), focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 15 to 25 per cent. These are farms that are not only adopting climate-smart practices but keeping records to verify and estimate the emission reductions.

Leading agronomy companies such as Agritrend and Farmers Edge have been working with Fertilizer Canada and the Government of Alberta to assist their farmer clients to apply their fertilizer more efficiently so they can improve profits and sell offsets in the Alberta greenhouse gas regulatory system.

To accomplish this, Canada's farmers are improving nitrogen management with the Nitrous Oxide Emission Reduction Protocol (NERP), delivered through a 4R Nutrient Stewardship plan on the farm. 4R Nutrient Stewardship is a science-based program, focused on sustainable agriculture that seeks to balance nutrient management decisions within a framework of economic, social, and environmental goals. NERP best management practices include the use of ammonium-based fertilizer, controlled release fertilizers, soil tests, precision placement and guidelines on fall application. These 4R Nutrient Stewardship practices are increasingly being adopted across Canada.

"Replenishing the nutrients used by the crop each year with fertilizer ensures the production of sustainable food. Farmers adopting this framework can improve the quality of the soil that plants need to thrive, without sacrificing the environment, ensuring the production of safe food for consumers," said Clyde Graham, senior vice-president of Fertilizer Canada.

While increasing crop production by 70 per cent to feed the growing population remains a priority, the fertilizer industry has also prioritized climate-smart agriculture as a way to minimize the impact on the environment. Nitrogen fertilizer is a driver of nitrous oxide emissions, but it is also the main driver of yield in modern high production systems.

Through careful selection of best management practices for nitrogen fertilizer as outlined in 4R Nutrient Stewardship, the nitrous oxide emissions per unit of crop produced can be substantially reduced, in some cases by up to half," said Dan Heaney, vice-president of research and development at Farmers Edge.

As an added benefit to the farmer, the practices that reduce nitrous oxide emissions also tend to increase nitrogen use efficiency and the economic return on fertilizer dollars. It is estimated that increased profits per year range from $9 to $87 per acre.

"The application of 4R Nutrient Stewardship using NERP provides a framework for farmers to reduce on-farm emissions of nitrous oxide in a quantifiable, credible, and verifiable way that would allow farmers to produce saleable carbon credits," said Bill Dorgan, business unit leader of Agri-Trend.

This framework for climate-smart agriculture is aimed at reducing regional, and ultimately global, nitrous oxide emissions.

"We are encouraged by the Government of Alberta's commitment to developing a nitrous oxide carbon offset program, and look forward to building similar protocols with other interested provinces, including Saskatchewan and Ontario," said Graham. "Internationally, small-holder farmers in developing countries can increase yeild and imrpove enrivonmental condtions by applying this framework."

The NERP was approved for use as an offset protocol in 2010 in Alberta. It is expected that the first NERP offset projects will be registered this year.

Fertilizer Canada has led two projects in Alberta, with financial support from Alberta Innovates BioSolutions, to provide NERP-based 4R Nutrient Stewardship training for farmers and the crop advisors who support them. In addition, Fertilizer Canada and the federal agriculture department (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) are jointly funding scientific field trials across Canada to quantify the N2O emission reductions from 4R Nutrient Stewardship practices.

Across Canada, Fertilizer Canada is completing a four-year project to deliver 4R Nutrient Stewardship training and information focused on greenhouse gas emission reduction with support from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The project was part of Canada's commitment to the Global Research Alliance announced at the Copenhagen COP.

The one million acres currently reducing greenhouse gas emissions using NERP represents roughly four per cent of Alberta province's 24 million acres of farmland. Though it's not enough, it demonstrates the fertilizer industry's commitment to accomplishing the Sustainable Development Goals set forward by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

 

 

Nov. 10, 2015 - Trimble is acquiring the assets of privately held Agri-Trend of Red Deer, Alta. The acquisition will enable Trimble to provide agronomists and other crop advisors with a stronger set of brand-agnostic tools they can use to advise growers on how to better manage their operations.

According to a news release, the combination of Agri-Trend's experience in agronomy, grain marketing, farm business and data management together with Trimble's experience in precision agriculture will further empower growers to gain efficiencies throughout the entire farming cycle. The acquisition is expected to close in November 2015. Financial terms were not disclosed.

Agri-Trend's network of over 200 specialists spread throughout the U.S. and Canada includes over 110 independent "coaches" specializing in agronomy, precision farming, crop marketing and farm business management. Coaches are supported by a team of science specialists comprised of over 30 Ph.D.'s and M.Sc.'s providing in-house research, training and insight support for both the coaching network and the Agri-Data Solution platform — a proprietary farm data management solution.

"Agri-Trend has been working side by side with farmers for over 17 years. With the strength that Trimble provides, we aim to help even more farmers as the move to precision agriculture continues to gain momentum globally," said Rob Saik, founder of Agri-Trend.

 

January 12, 2015 - At first glance, there is nothing appetizing about huitlacoche, a corn fungus that North American farmers tend to view as a disease.

Ugly and grey, the engorged kernels look like a genetic mistake, and do nothing to tempt a diner.

But overcome their appearance and savour their mushroomy flavour and extra protein — as Mexicans have for hundreds of years — and maybe those kernels full of of corn smut are the genesis of a new delicacy for Canadian food producers and health-conscious consumers.

Barry Saville is working on that hypothesis, and the chair of the forensic science program at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., now finds himself at the forefront as Canadian researchers and agricultural producers looking for new products.

"We think we could probably grow [huitlacoche] out as a niche market where you're looking at farmers' markets initially and then build it up," he says.

Canadian producers looking to tap fresh markets now have all sorts of unlikely new crops in the mix — ranging from farm-grown shrimp to haskaps, a berry of Russian and Japanese origin that thrives in colder climes.

READ MORE.

Dec. 12, 2013, Fairfield, CT - Connecticut is the first U.S. state to pass legislation to make companies say if their products contain genetically modified organisms or GMOs.

The state bill requires certain foods intended for humans to be clearly marked that it is entirely or partially genetically engineered.

Connecticut's law goes into effect after four other states enacted similar legislation.

"I am proud that leaders from each of the legislative caucuses can come together to make our state the first in the nation to require the labeling of (Genetically Modified Organisms)," Gov. Dannel Malloy said in a statement. "The end result is a law that shows our commitment to consumers' right to know while catalyzing other states to take similar action."

In addition, a combination of northeastern states with a combined population of at least 20 million, including Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, must adopt similar laws.

Officials said the bill also includes language that will protect local farmers to ensure regional adoption of the new labeling system before it will require local farms to analyze and label genetically engineered products.

Photo courtesy of Marleen Van Ham.

July 9, 2013, Guelph, Ont. – Several trends emerged from the Exploring Rural Land Use conference, held in Guelph, Ont., on May 14.

Farm ownership trends

Alfons Weeksink presented farm ownership trends based on surveys of farmers who rented land. He found that:
  • 60 per cent of land was held by owners who were on their own land;
  • Eight per cent were held investment companies,
  • 13 per cent held by owner investors; and
  • Three per cent foreign ownership.
Rental agreements were typically one-year handshakes that tend to get renewed annually but carry on for longer than 10 years. Eighty per cent are cash rent as opposed to share crop or other types of agreements. Rates were generally higher where locals own the land.

Weeksink posed the question, "Does the environment lose with land rental?" His studies indicated this was not a significant issue. Owners usually only maintain contracts with farmers that manage the land in a way that landlords felt was reasonable. Since the supply of land is limited, landlords have some power to enforce this. He also found that renting farmers tend to manage their rented land the same as their own, using the same equipment and products. He did find a decrease in woodland, pasture, and other ecological features being retained, and perhaps less investment in soil. Long-term impacts may result so further study is needed.

Farmland value trends

James Bryan of Farm Credit Canada suggested that land prices were strongly influenced by interest rates, cash receipts, government policy and world markets. In 2012, Canadian farmland values increased 19 per cent, the highest rate ever. Values have generally increased more than 10 per cent annually since 2007. 

Trends in Southwestern Ontario

Marleen Van Ham, an appraiser with Agri-Choice Real Estate Appraisals, discussed land value trends in Southwestern Ontario. Class of farmland does not always impact values, but the location and ability for quick conversion to cropland often does. Pasture land is definitely being converted to crops, woodlots are being cut, and fence rows and ditches are being removed. Census data from 2006 and 2011 show a loss of 714,000 acres of forage acres (484,000 of hay and 229,000 of pasture).

Van Ham indicated that there is a real "hunger" for land right now. Much of it being driven by dairy and poultry producers who are not as able to expand, so are becoming the new cash croppers. She described it as a trend in farmland amalgamation, with surplus, older farmsteads being removed. Recent farmland values recently peaked in January/February, slightly lower in March, with the following "per tillable acre" prices:

  • Elgin: $6-18,000/acre,
  • Norfolk: $8-14,000 (with ginseng and potatoes soils at high end),
  • Haldimand: $6-10,000,
  • Oxford: $15-22,000,
  • Brant: $8-13,000,
  • Waterloo: $9-15,000,
  • Perth: $12-20,000,
  • Huron: $9-15,000.
The price slowdown was attributed to people taking a breather from getting caught up in the hysteria of land sales. Interestingly, land purchasers acknowledge that under these conditions, the price paid cannot be covered by the income generating potential of the land.

The sale of farms to operating farms is putting the squeeze on the straight cash cropper. They really can't pencil the land purchase themselves and are reliant on retired and other farmers to supply land to the rental market. However, now the retirees are selling the farms to active supply management farmers, so the cash cropper land base is shrinking. As land rental availability gets tighter, it becomes more competitive and costly.

Van Ham indicated that the value of vacant land is higher than land with buildings, houses and outbuildings that pose a risk and added cost to the purchaser. The presence of water courses and woodlots also detract from land values. Buyers are looking for tillable land in large parcels with no fence lines or obstructions for big equipment. Farmers generally don't want to be house landlords because it can be difficult to find good tenants. Even with good tenants, the costs of taxes, heating, and maintenance can erode any chance of generating a positive balance sheet on this activity.

Mar. 11, 2013 - Farmers feed your family, then take a second job to feed their own.  It’s a sad, but true, reality for those trying to make it in arguably the most noble of professions, as over 70 per cent of young farmers work more than 40 hours a week off farm to support their operations.
 
“When did feeding the world become a pastime?” said Sarah Wray, a board member with the FarmOn Foundation.  “Nobody would expect a restaurant owner to run his establishment, not even break even and then take a second job in the oilfield, just to make ends meet for his family.  But this is exactly what is being expected of farmers. “
 
No more.  Farmers feed this entire planet, and it’s time the world paid attention!  The FarmOn Foundation is calling on young farmers to stand up, tell their stories and show people their own farming reality through the Farm Voices project. 

On April 22, Earth Day, the organization is rallying farmers to use the power of social media and post a photo and a thought to Facebook, Instagram and/or Twitter about their experience as a farmer, attaching the hashtag #FARMVOICES.
 
“Young people have been at the forefront of every great social movement in history,” noted Wray. “The power of social media means that we now have the opportunity to effectively and powerfully speak for our own industry, directly to the audience we’re trying to engage.”
 
Too often, the agriculture industry has sat back and allowed others to have a more powerful voice with the public, rather than stepping up and telling their own story in a way that will truly speak to others.  With the launch of Farm Voices, FarmOn hopes to mobilize a movement led by young farmers to create change and awareness with consumers.
 
While farmers have proven amazing stewards of the land, they have left the story of their industry for others to tell.  But it’s truly critical for sustainability and success that this trend does not continue.
 
“I don’t know about other farmers out there, but I’m sick and tired of groups like PETA trying to tell my story,” said Wray. “We take pride in our operations and the handling of our livestock, treating them with the utmost respect and care.  It’s our turn. The world needs to hear the reality of the family farm.”
 
For more information about the Farm Voices movement and how you can become involved, visit www.farmon.com/farmvoices or follow the link to this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2TsQs40EoIk

Barley fibre helps lower cholesterol. That health claim, approved by Health Canada in 2012, is good news for Canadians, since about 40 percent of adults between the ages of 20 and 79 have unhealthy cholesterol levels. And, if the health claim inspires consumers to demand food barley, then it will also be good news for food barley growers and processors.

Scientifically valid health benefit

Although the health benefits of various foods are often talked about, to have a health claim officially approved by an agency like Health Canada is a rigorous, science-based process.

Development of the barley health claim was led by Dr. Nancy Ames, a food scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), with input from many stakeholders. She started working on barley as a healthful food about 15 years ago, using some of the varieties that were being developed by the Crop Development Centre (CDC) at the University of Saskatchewan and AAFC at the Brandon Research Centre. Over the next decade, Ames and her lab analyzed the food properties of different barley varieties, and created a wide range of tasty products, where barley enhanced the product’s nutrition and function for parameters such as dough performance and baking performance. 

But food companies and consumers still weren’t very interested in food barley. Ames thought a health claim might help spark their interest. She had provided some information for a barley health claim in the United States, which was approved in 2006. That claim was based on the benefits of beta-glucan, a type of soluble fibre, in lowering cholesterol. Several other countries had also approved similar health claims. 

So in 2007, Ames invited a large group of barley stakeholders, including breeders, growers, processors, food scientists, nutritionists and others, to discuss the idea of a Canadian barley health claim. Although there were studies indicating various other health benefits from barley, the scientifically strongest information was for the role of barley beta-glucan in lowering cholesterol. All the stakeholders supported the idea, and Ames and her lab began the detailed process of preparing a health claim. 

“We reviewed the articles systematically to select those studies that would give the most scientifically valid information and that met Health Canada’s criteria,” says Ames. “For example, Health Canada would only consider human trials, not animal trials, and the trials had to involve enough participants, and to measure beta-glucan in the proper way – all of those types of details. Then we did a statistical analysis of the studies that met the criteria.” In addition, she obtained input from nutritionists and chemists on some of the information coming out of the analysis. 

The submission also identified some gaps in the scientific information. “That’s very important because as objective scientists, we want to make sure we find the truth,” notes Ames. So even after the claim was submitted, she continued to do research to fill those gaps. 

The Alberta Barley Commission, as a representative of the barley industry, submitted the health claim to Health Canada in February 2009. In July 2012, Health Canada approved it. According to Health Canada, consumption of at least three grams of barley beta-glucan per day helps reduce cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease.

Diversity in varieties

High beta-glucan barley varieties suited to western Canadian conditions have been developed thanks to breeders like Dr. Brian Rossnagel, professor emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan and a distinguished barley and oat breeder.

Both barley and oats contain beta-glucan, whereas wheat contains almost none, and corn and rice have none at all. In oats, beta-glucan is found mainly in the grain’s outer portion, but in barley it is distributed uniformly through the grain, so processors can use various portions of the kernel and still have a high amount of beta-glucan in their product.
Rossnagel saw the potential importance of barley beta-glucan not long after he started at the CDC. “In the early 1980s, the [health] information about the beta-glucan in oats was becoming dominant in the research community,” he notes. “From our work to lower beta-glucan in hulless barley for feed purposes, I knew that we could also raise the beta-glucan in barley even more easily than in oats.”

So the CDC set to work developing hulless food barleys with higher beta-glucan levels. (Hulless types are more convenient for food uses because hulled types require hull removal during processing.)

The CDC has released five high beta-glucan varieties so far. Current varieties include CDC Fibar, CDC Rattan and CDC Hilose. These three varieties also offer a range of starch characteristics to suit the needs of food manufacturers.
Barley has two types of starch: amylose and amylopectin. Their relative proportions influence the grain’s functional and nutritional qualities. For example, a higher amylose content leads to higher levels of “resistant starch,” which may help reduce glycemic response, an important factor in the control of diabetes.

“Of our three current varieties, CDC Fibar has the highest beta-glucan content [about 10 percent] but the poorest agronomic performance,” says Rossnagel. “The other two varieties are quite competitive in terms of productivity, disease resistance, straw strength and so on. CDC Rattan has high beta-glucan and waxy starch [higher proportion of amylopectin]. CDC Hilose has high beta-glucan and a higher proportion of amylose.”

Rossnagel notes the CDC has “several other food barley varieties on the way – if there is a market for it. At this point there is no market for the product.” However, he is hopeful that will change.

Healthful incentive

The health claim and the work that such people as Nancy Ames, Marta Izydorczyk at the Canadian Grain Commission and Linda Malcolmson at Canadian International Grains Institute have done on barley nutrition over the past two decades should be an incentive for food companies to take a closer look at food barley, notes Rossnagel. He also sees another factor that could help.

“When the Canadian Wheat Board was the sole marketing agency for barley, the paperwork and regulatory burden made it very difficult for small companies to grow a small amount of a food barley and process it for use by a local baker, for instance. Now they don’t have that impediment,” he says. “So hopefully some smaller operations will be able to [take advantage of such opportunities]. Then if some of them become noticeably successful, the big food companies will look at barley.”

One western Canadian product already using the health claim is Quick Cooking Barley. Its product information now includes the statement: “50 g (1/2 cup) of Progressive Foods Inc. Quick Cooking Barley provides 75% of the daily amount of the fibre shown to help lower cholesterol.”

“Quick Cooking Barley is whole-grain hulless barley that has been lightly buffed, cooked and dried so that it is ready in 10 minutes without sacrificing any nutritional benefit,” says Marvin Nakonechny, CEO of Progressive Foods. “It is a healthy, convenient, tasty alternative to rice, pasta and potato.”

Currently, Progressive Foods uses Falcon, a non-waxy, hulless variety, for Quick Cooking Barley. “I’m investigating other non-waxy barleys that have a higher soluble fibre content, and we’re testing them to see how well they work in our processing plant,” notes Nakonechny, adding he thinks using one of the higher beta-glucan varieties could mean that a half-cup serving of Quick Cooking Barley would provide 100 percent of the daily amount of barley beta-glucan required to lower cholesterol.

He believes the health claim will help the food barley industry a great deal, by increasing the interest of health-conscious consumers and by providing information for nutritional educators. He would also like to see Canadian health claims for some of barley’s other benefits, such as its effect on lowering glycemic response.

For consumers, barley offers more than beta-glucan fibre; for example, it has a high level of vitamin E, antioxidant components, and other important types of dietary fibre. “Barley has a good complement of vitamins and minerals that make it a pretty well-rounded food,” says Ames.

Researchers are continuing to evaluate barley’s other health effects. For example, Ames is conducting clinical trials on the role of barley in lowering glycemic response and in providing a sense of fullness after eating, which helps with weight control. The results so far look promising.

As well, Ames and others have developed various food barley processes and recipes to encourage consumers and companies to consider barley. “You can puff it, bake it and make all sorts of things from it,” she notes. “We developed a retort product [an instant whole-grain product]. We’ve got barley tortillas, tortilla chips, pitas and cookies. Barley goes beautifully in bannock, and I have a delicious waffle recipe – waffles are really dull until you have these barley waffles.”

Ames is currently using the health claim as a way to help people learn about food barley. For instance, she is talking to dietitians about the health claim, and she has developed recipes specific to the health claim so people can easily obtain their daily three grams of barley beta-glucan.

Despite all these efforts, growing the food barley industry remains a challenge. “We still have some mountains to climb,” says Ames. “Our hope has always been to let consumers know about and have the opportunity to utilize barley for its nutritional and sensory properties. I’m not sure yet if the health claim is helping towards that. If we can just get consumers to realize that barley has a lot to offer them, the rest will fall into place.”

 

Feb. 26, 2013, Ottawa, ON - An expert panel convened by the Council of Canadian Academies has found that water and land resources in Canada can be more sustainably managed by developing forward-thinking policies and effective land and water management strategies, adopting effective governance mechanisms, and harnessing technological advancements.

The agricultural sector is an important contributor to Canada's prosperity and well-being. In 2011, primary agriculture alone produced $51.1 billion in gross farm receipts. It also plays a vital role in the food sector which is linked to nearly $100 billion per year in economic activity and approximately 1 in 7.5 Canadian jobs. As the world's population grows, so does the demand for food. Rising incomes are causing a shift in global patterns of food consumption towards higher-value forms of agricultural production. There is also increased demand for non-food agricultural products such as biofuels and natural fibres.

According to Dr. Howard Wheater, chair of the Council's expert panel, agriculture and water "provide us with our most basic needs, and are intimately connected.

"While most farmers are their own water managers, using rain and snow for crop production, irrigation and livestock farming are major water consumers and face increasing competition from other water uses," says Wheater. "Agriculture has changed much of our land area and can affect the water environment in many ways. It also faces major challenges due to the uncertain impact of climate variability, including floods and droughts, and climate change.

He added the Council's panel "explored these issues in great detail and our report lays out five practical areas where additional science and action can contribute to better sustainable management of water in agriculture."

Additional science is needed regarding:

  • The risks and uncertainties of market conditions, competition for land and water resources, and climate change.
  • Improved monitoring, modelling and forecasting to facilitate adaptive management.
  • The interaction between land management and water resources - including assessment of beneficial management practices (BMPs), conservation agriculture, and ecosystem services approaches.
  • Promising farm-scale technologies that could contribute to efficient water use, reduced environmental impacts, and sound investment decisions.
  • Governance structures, valuation techniques, economic incentives, and knowledge transfer strategies that would help to facilitate better management decisions and uptake of sustainable practices.
For more information, or to download a free copy of the report, please visit http://www.scienceadvice.ca/en/assessments/completed/water-agri.aspx.
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

Feb. 4, 2013 - The Manitoba government and Ducks Unlimited Canada marked World Wetlands Day on Feb. 2 by announcing a $3.5-million partnership to help restore Delta Marsh, one of the world's largest marshes covering 190 square kilometres on the southern shores of Lake Manitoba. The restoration will improve the marsh's natural function to filter out nitrogen and phosphorus that would otherwise flow into the province's waterways including Lake Winnipeg. It is the largest project of its kind in North America.

The new project will keep the invasive and destructive fish species known as common carp from entering Delta Marsh. Common carp, native to Asia and parts of Europe, are large bottom-dwelling fish that disrupt entire wetland ecosystems by regularly rooting up vegetation and stirring up silt and sediment, which stops sunlight from reaching other aquatic life. The minister noted that research has shown vegetation will recover if the carp are prevented from entering the marsh during the late spring and summer, as they do not overwinter in the marsh.

The project will see fish screens that keep out large destructive carp placed in strategic entry points to the marsh over the winter. The placement of the screens will be timed to allow the movement of native species of fish, such as walleye, that use the marsh to spawn earlier in the spring.

The province's contribution of $500,000 to the project was used to leverage an additional $3 million from Ducks Unlimited Canada and their partners, including Wildlife Habitat Canada, for a total project contribution of $3.5 million. Ducks Unlimited is supervising the undertaking, which will begin in February and finish in late spring.

 

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